Millennial madness is loose in the land. The 20th century is about to become as remote as the 19th. The passing century is one that Henry Luce claimed as American in 1941. Regardless of your view of this presumption, no one country will own the next. Whether it’s television and magazine specials or the Y2K panic, the next 240 days are going to be intense.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is already in action, inaugurating a museumwide celebration of its own with “The American Century: Art & Culture 1900–1950.” As the title implies, this is only the first installment; part two will follow in September. So this show might more accurately be called “The American Half-
Century,” or, even more precisely, “The Whitney’s American Half-Century.” The exhibition seems designed to prop up the museum’s outdated version of the American art of its time and, by implication, its importance as a cultural institution.
Filling the entire five-floor Marcel Breuer building, it’s a half-century in a box, all wrapped up and going no place. A behemoth, it proceeds
roughly at a decade per floor, from the Gilded Age and The Eight to the early years of abstract expressionism. In
between are cheek-by-jowl sections covering Precisionism, social realism, the Stieglitz and Arensberg circles (Duchamp’s all-important urinal is here), geometric and bimorphic abstraction, Arts and Crafts, and surrealism. Great chunks of American history glide in and out of view: the rise of New York, immigration, the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II and its aftermath, full of promise yet ominously divided by race and class.
Is this fun? Not really. The show is alternately exhausting and exhilarating, familiar and surprising; unfortunately, in the end it’s not exhilarating and surprising enough. In a time of rampant art-historical revisionism, “The American Century” sticks far too close to the original vision of the Whitney’s founders. Perhaps that’s because it’s been organized by Barbara Haskell, a Whitney curator for 25 years. In many ways, she is cast here in the bittersweet role of a Gorbachev-like figure who sees that change is possible, even inevitable, but who is constantly dragged down by the weight of the institution and its past.
Haskell strives mightily. Her catalogue text is lucid and dramatic. She repeatedly introduces the art of women, nonwhites, and unknowns—as well as various “minor” art forms like craft and design—into the mix. But too often these things are used to spice up a very familiar dish. There are tantalizing pockets of “Culture,” including movies, music, illustration, and industrial design. Folk art is represented by one lone genius, Horace Pippin. But the only medium that really makes its presence felt is photography, which Haskell spreads about liberally. Think of photography as continually gaining on the outside track—the exhibition’s dark horse, backbone, saving grace, and ultimately its shining star.
The central problem with this exhibition lies in the dominance of painting and sculpture, too much of which seems parochial and derivative. Walk through the show and see how often you find yourself thinking about European precedents. For example, when looking at works by Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, and other artists of the group known as The Eight—founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s first aesthetic love, which takes up much too much space here—you will probably think mostly of Manet. In front of ’30s geometric abstraction—Charles Biederman, George L.K. Morris, Burgoyne Diller—you think of Miró, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. With regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, you won’t think about anything because there’s nothing much to think about. To double-check, in any given section compare the painting with the photography and again you will see how much more formally inventive and emotionally convincing the photographs often are. Charles Sheeler’s photos of industry in motion eclipse his paintings of the same subject. Ben Shahn is a better photographer than he is a painter. And Walker Evans cuts closer to the bone than Edward Hopper, who can be such a pain.
Photographers like Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston grasped the possibilities of both their medium and the American spectacle emerging before their eyes. They had a clean shot at a great subject—the birth of the multifaceted American soul—and they nailed it. In this period, American photography can hold its own against any other art form in any other country.
Of course, there are many strong nonphotographic works as well. To name just a few: Elie Nadelman’s
Tango (1919); a beautiful gathering of the proto-Pop paintings of Gerald Murphy; Marsden Hartley’s visionary portrait of the young Abraham Lincoln; Joseph Stella’s stunning mosaic of high color and exuberance, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913–14); and Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Good Shepherd (1902–3), a moonlit landscape composed of weightless massings of delicate lines. Other standouts include works by Rebecca Strand, Alice Trumbull Mason, F. Holland Day, and William H. Johnson, but as in countless other cases, these artists are represented by only one work. They’re here and then gone, leaving you wanting more.
The truth is that the greatness of American art during this period lay mostly beyond the traditional media of painting and sculpture, which means this show shines brightest at its edges. Two of its most ravishing moments remind us that the movies are the dominant art form of the 20th century, American or otherwise: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s meltingly beautiful skipping dance to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” in The Gay Divorcee, and Busby Berkeley’s ecstatically lunatic choreography in Gold Diggers of 1933, featuring dancing girls who form ornate, pulsating patterns while playing neon violins.
Other geniuses at the show’s margins include the architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra (but no Empire State Building or Pennsylvania Station); the designers Henry Dreyfuss (of the black rotary telephone) and Raymond Loewy (represented only by a Flash Gordon–like pencil sharpener); and the great ceramic artist George Ohr, whose three tiny vases have some of the insouciant grace of Fred and Ginger.
One of the show’s greatest missed opportunities shows up in the final galleries, where this ponderous saga peters out in the art of the abstract expressionists, among a handful of small, not always stellar works. There is, for example, no late-1940s black-and-white de Kooning and only one work each by Pollock, Kline, and Still. In the hollowness of these galleries, other possibilities come to mind. The idea that occurred to me was that during the 1940s some of the most creative American outsider artists of the century were working or beginning to work, among them Martin Ramirez, Henry Darger, A.G. Rizzoli, and Bill Traylor, a freed slave. They weren’t known at the time, but they deserved to be and now they are. Evidently, that would have been going too far for the Whitney, an institution that seems content with the same old American century.